How France beat Morocco to return to World Cup finals

For Antoine Griezmann, the first few months of this season have been close to disrespectful. His status at Atlético Madrid seemed to have dwindled to something between a relic and a punchline for one of his era’s most popular forwards, a mere curiosity.

The problem is not really of his making. A few years ago, Griezmann left Atletico – the team that helped make him a star – for Barcelona. The move, which was announced in a glossy, LeBron James-style documentary, didn’t endear him to anyone.

The Barcelona he joined creaks and fades, the dull rumble of thunder in the distance. Griezmann has only played well in flashes and flurries, given the club’s growing frustration that his eye-catching spending hasn’t produced the expected – or needed – returns. Last year, he was finally allowed to return on loan to Atletico, his purgatory in Catalonia.

However, the problems were not over. His loan deal ran for two seasons. If he plays a certain number of minutes in the second campaign, Atletico will be forced to pay a certain fee to Barcelona to keep him permanently. Unwilling to cut prices, Atlético tried to find a loophole.

Diego Simeone, the club’s manager, only introduced Griezmann as a second-half substitute. He played 30 minutes here, 20 minutes there. Atletico never confirmed the deal, but it seemed clear that Griezmann was being held back as a negotiating ploy.

debt…John Nazca/Reuters

That particular issue, thankfully, was resolved before the World Cup. But the damage — at least to Griezmann’s reputation — was done. Barcelona don’t want Griezmann. Atlético did, but only on the cheap. He is no longer the scrappy, inventive forward who was considered one of the best players in the world a few years ago. Now, he was an afterthought.

Then came Qatar. Griezmann isn’t the most popular member of France’s attacking line – that title goes to Kylian Mbappe – and he’s not the most prolific, thanks to the evergreen Olivier Giroud. He may not have the world at his feet like Aurélien Tchouámeni. But there is a compelling case that Griezmann is the most important member of Didier Deschamps’ squad.

Griezmann may not be France’s star, but he is certainly its brain. It is Griezmann who provides the imagination, and the trickery and craftsmanship. That has always appealed to Deschamps about him, helping him make 72 consecutive appearances for his country over the past six years.

This is another trait that has made Griezmann invaluable at this World Cup. After injuries to Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Karim Benzema, Deschamps had to develop a new approach for the French. He had to reorganize his midfield and adjust his attacking position. Griezmann makes it all happen. He has the instincts to adapt how and where he plays, and the versatility to make things run smoothly and ensure he thrives where he is needed.

Of course, Griezmann has always had that gift. He has played at various stages of his career, on both wings, as a lone striker and as a central, creative force. At club level, it’s possible – even likely – that his versatility held him back. Europe’s top teams now play in high-definition systems, where specialists for each role are recruited at high cost. Griezmann is not so easily pigeonholed, and in some lights, that might seem like a flaw.

In international football, it is quite the opposite. Even Deschamps, the beneficiary of the game’s richest talent farm, must adjust and adapt what he has; He cannot afford a solution to any particular problem. In that situation, a player like Griezmann, someone who can be a coach, is a rare and precious thing: a Swiss Army knife, very elegantly, that serves as a key.

debt…Ronald Wittek/EPA, via Shutterstock

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